This technically should have been the very first post in the set, but I am a bit daft like that. At any rate, the process of creating tea types should be important. It is nice to know exactly what the leaves in your favorite cup of tea went through before they ended up there.
Thea Sinensis is an evergreen plant in the Camellia family. There are three closely related varieties generally recognized by botanists:
Camellia Sinensis – The China bush. It can grown to a maximum height of 9 – 15 feet and thrives in China, Tibet, and Japan. This variety can withstand extremely cold temperatures and can go on producing 2-inch long leaves for up to 100 years.
Camellia Assamica – Considered a tree rather than a bush, it can reach heights of 45-60 feet with leaves that range from 6-14 inches long. It flourishes in tropical climates and will go on producing for approximately 40 years.
Camellia Assamica Subspecies Lasiocalyx – The Cambodian variety is also a tree that grows to roughly 15 feet and is typically used in the production of hybrids.
Tea plants grow best in hot and humid conditions and the most suitable climates offer temperatures ranging from 50 to 85 degrees F, 80 to 90 inches of rainfall a year, and elevations from 1,000 to 7,000 feet above sea level.
A combination of humidity and altitude promotes the desired slow growth, and the higher the tea is grown, the more flavor and the finer the quality is considered. Many of the world’s most famous teas (such as China’s Weyi and India’s best Darjeelings) come from bushes cultivated above 4,000 feet. The final taste and quality of the product, as with the production of wine, is influenced by many important factors – climate, soil, altitude, conditions, when and how it is plucked and processed, the blending, packaging, transportation, and storage.
In the past, tea plants were typically grown from seed. However, today’s new stock is usually produced by vegetative propagation (from cuttings and layered transplanted rooted branches) and from clonal leaf cuttings.
New plants are raised in a tea nursery and are transplanted to a plantation after about six months. By this times they have grown to a height of somewhere around 6-8 inches. The young bushes are allowed (app.) 16 square feet of room to grow each and are left unplucked and unpruned for two or more years. During this period they reach a height of roughly 5-6 feet. They are then pruned back to somewhere around 1 foot high, allowed to grow a bit, and then pruned weekly to keep them at waist height. Commercial plucking beings after three to five years, depending on conditions and altitude.
The leaves are plucked as the new shoots – or “flush” – are beginning to grow. In hotter climates, the plants have several flushes, while cooler climates with a dominant winter period have a shorter, limited flushing season. Leaves from the early flushes are widely sought after, but it is the second flushes that are considered to give the finest teas. For the best quality tea, pickers remove two leaves and a bud from each new shoot. These are nipped off with a downward movement of the thumb. Because of a shortage of labor in some tea-producing areas, mechanical plucking, carried out with specially adapted tractors and harvesters or with hand-held shears, has replaced the tradition, skilled hand plucking. The quality of these teas are generally considered inferior on their own, but are useful for blending.
The six main types of teas – white, green, oolong, black, scented, and compressed – are naturally all made from the same plant. The way the leaves are processed is what gives you the final type of tea and each of these six types offer many different varieties under each category resulting in over 3,000 types of tea from around the world. The following is a quick overview of the basic types of teas and processing.
White Tea is produced on a limited scale (originally Fujian Province). The new buds are plucked before they open, are withered to allow the natural moisture to evaporate, and then dried. The curled-up buds have a silvery appearance and give a very pale, straw-coloured liquor.
Sometimes referred to as “non-fermented” or “unfermented” teas, Green Tea is made by allowing the freshly picked leaves to dry, then heat-treating them to stop any fermentation (or oxidation) that would rot the leaf from occurring. In China, traditional hand-making methods are still employed in many places. By the traditional method, the fresh green leaves are spread out in a thin layer on bamboo trays and exposed to sunlight or natural warm air for one or two hours. The leaves are then placed, a small amount at a time, into hot roasting pans and moved about quickly with the hands, as they become soft and moist, the natural moisture evaporates. (A small amount of China’s Green Teas are steamed rather than roasted). After four or five minutes, the softened leaves are rolled into balls on bamboo tables and then placed almost immediately back into the hot pans, being moved about rapidly before being rolled for a second time or being left to dry. After one or two hours, the leaves have turned a dull green and undergo no further changes.
In Japan, the plucked leaves are steamed quickly, making the supple and soft for rolling. They are cooled and the repeatedly rolled, twisted, and dried until all the moisture has evaporated. A final rolling stage shapes and styles the leaves before the last drying period.
Matcha is made from shade-grown green tea (also known as gyokuro). Preparation of Matcha starts several weeks before the harvest with the tea bushes being covered to prevent direct sunlight. After harvesting, the leaves are meticulously steamed and after the leaves are separated from the stems, so the leaves alone (tencha) are grounded into the powder called matcha.
Oolong tea is generally referred to as a “semi-fermented” tea and is principally manufactured in China and Taiwan (still called as Formosa in tea terminology more often than not). For the manufacture of China oolongs it is very important that the leaves not be picked too soon and that they are processed immediately after plucking. The leaves are first wilted in direct sunlight, then shaken in bamboo baskets to lightly bruise the edges of the leaves. Next, they are alternately shaken and spread out to dry until the leaf surface turns slightly yellow in colour. The edges of the leaf turn a reddish colour as the bruised areas react with oxygen. This fermentation or oxidation period is halted after 1 1/2 – 2 hours (depending on the type of oolong) by firing. Formosa oolongs undergo a longer fermentation period and are typically blacker in appearance than China Oolongs, and give a richer, darker liquor than the paler orange-brown of China Oolongs.
Pouchong is a variety of very lightly fermented tea that undergoes a shorter fermentation period than oolong. It forms a sort of extra category between green and oolong. Origination, if memory serves, in Fujian Province, Pouchongs are predominantly made in Taiwan and are most often used as a base for Jasmine and other scented teas.
Methods for creating black tea differ considerably between different regions. However, the process always includes four basic steps – withering, rolling, fermenting, and firing (or drying). The traditional “orthodox” method is still used widely. The plucked leaves are spread out to wither (in shaded areas for finer varieties) until limp enough to be rolled without splitting the surface of the leaf. At this stage, the leaves give out a fruity, almost apple-like scent. Next, the withered leaf is rolled, in order to release the final colour and flavor- use of a Rotorvane machine is applied in most factories to crush the leaf lightly, but some places still do this process by hand which, in my humble opinion, makes for a better end product. The rolled lumps of tea are then broken up and spread out in a cool, humid atmosphere for 3 1/2 – 4 1/2 hours to absorb oxygen, which causes a chemical change in the leaf particles and turns them from green to a coppery red.
Finally, the oxidized (or fermented) leaf is fired in order to arrest the natural decomposition, the leaves turn to black, and acquire a familiar smell. Traditionally, firing is carried out in large pans over open fires and is still practiced. In larger factories, the tea is passed through hot air tunnels or baked in hot ovens.
During the Tang Dynasty, Chinese tea producers started forming their tea into solid cakes by first steaming the green leaves and then compressing them into bricks or cakes that were allowed to dry. Some bricks were mixed with bonding agents (such as flour) to make them more stable and were used a currency. The leaves are sometimes powdered, sometimes broken, and sometimes whole depending on which type of compressed tea you are looking at. Pu-erh falls under this category, but the process for creating that drink takes on additional steps, naturally.
Green, Black, and Oolong teas are all used as bases for creating scented tea. Additional flavors are mixed with the processed leaves (usually) as the final stages before the tea is packaged. For Jasmine tea, whole jasmine blossoms are added, for Rose Pouchong or Rose Congou rose petals are added with China or Formosa oolong, for example. Herbal, fruit, and flower tisanes and infusions that do not contain any product of Camellia Sinensis shouldn’t be confused with scented and flavored teas.
There are many, many different processes that tea leaves go through to reach their final states and these are only the very basics. Learning the process behind each blend can bring a better appreciation for the cup. Even the most simple process takes great skill and knowledge and should never be taken lightly.